Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 3)

As the holiday season winds down, and marketers make their last cash grab of 2015, it’s time to talk about a self-control dilemma that is near and dear to my heart: impulse shopping. Black Friday is over, Cyber Monday has come and gone, but for some reason, there is no term for the deep discounts on holiday overstock that are currently flooding my email inbox. Perhaps that’s part of the point. By keeping marketing messages subtle, retailers can actually activate thoughts without your conscious awareness. You probably just got a bunch of crap you don’t need yesterday, so why are you thinking of buying more stuff today just because it’s 25% off? Knowing is half the battle, so in this installment of Psy Applied, I will be shedding some light onto the ways that marketers influence your purchasing goals.

  1. Priming- When someone is primed, it means that they have encountered a message that has affected their thoughts and behavior outside of conscious awareness.1 This is literally the entire point behind a lot of brand messaging. Much of the efficacy of these messages depends on you staying the dark. If you suddenly have a craving for Coca-Cola, you may not act on it if you realize that you’ve just been exposed to a Coca-Cola product placement on a television show. However, if you don’t notice the product placement, you are significantly more likely to choose the brand that you have just been exposed to. Research on priming has revealed some potent effects. In research about incidental brand exposure, researchers altered several pictures by placing a Dasani water bottle in the scene.2 The participants who didn’t notice the Dasani water in the pictures were significantly more likely to choose Dasani bottled water over another brand, but only after they had been exposed to the brand 12 times.2 While this may seem excessive, it actually mimics real life in many ways. We are bombarded with thousands of incidental brand messages each day, many of which involve repeat exposure to popular brands.3 Marketers use the fact that you can’t attend to all of these messages to their advantage, and they hope to bug you enough to be on your brain, but not enough so that you really know why. Notice the prime, fight the power.
  1. Persuasive appeals- Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has spent much of his career trying to uncover the strategies that people use to persuade others to behave in certain desired ways. Specifically, Cialdini uncovered 6 persuasion tactics that marketers use to make you buy in.4 The first strategy, reciprocation, depends on you feeling indebted for getting something for free, whether it’s a sample at the grocery store, or a five-dollar bill included with a marketing survey you got in the mail. Essentially, they make you feel like you owe them. The second strategy, and my personal favorite, is social proof. This is when marketers convince you that everyone else is doing it. In one study about hotel water conservation, guests were significantly more likely to reuse their towels when the appeal to do so included information that most of the other guests participated in the reuse program.5 This is basically marketing peer pressure. The third strategy, commitment, activates our desire to be consistent in our thoughts and behavior, and is often used for things like weight loss programs. If you tell everyone you are doing it, you have a desire to follow through so you don’t look bad. No one wants to be a flip-flopper. Strategy four, liking, is a common approach used by salespeople. We buy things from people we like, so marketers try harness this in several ways. They may hire a popular celebrity, a person that’s incredibly attractive, or they may try to target marketing towards specific people, increasing liking through the similarity between you and the spokesperson. The fifth strategy, authority, involves convincing people that you have expert knowledge. Marketers may use doctors to sell weight loss drugs or chefs to sell cookware. Their goal is to convince you that people in the know prefer their products. Finally, the sixth strategy, scarcity, tries to convince people that their opportunity to buy is limited. This may be through special edition or seasonal products, or through limited release collector’s editions, for example. The name of the game is to make you feel like you will miss out if you don’t act now. These 6 strategies are incredibly effective, and they’ve been selling you stuff since you were born.

It’s not surprising that advertising appeals affect the things that we purchase. Why else would companies dump billions of dollars into marketing? We often like to think that we are above being influenced, but Cialdini has demonstrated just how easy it is to persuade someone, while others have shed light onto how this may affect your behavior completely outside of conscious awareness. As we enter 2016 with our holiday bills burning a hole in our mailboxes, remember this: A savvy consumer is a suspicious consumer.


  1. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1996). Automatic activation of impression formation and memorization goals: Nonconscious goal priming reproduces effects of explicit task instructions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(3), 464.
  1. Ferraro, R., Bettman, J. R., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). The power of strangers: The effect of incidental consumer brand encounters on brand choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(5), 729-741.
  1. Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
  1. Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence. A. Michel.
  1. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.





10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 10

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Image from PsyBlog

In our 10th and final installment, I want to wrap up our discussion by reviewing a topic near and dear to my heart: automaticity. Automaticity in the consumer environment refers to actions that occur without thought, and often refers to the process of priming, which is activating a concept without conscious awareness. Priming is quite common, and advertisers often depend on the automatic effects of priming in their advertising. For instance, product placements in TV shows or movies are meant to be subtle while activating a desire for the product, or creating associations between the product and something you enjoy (i.e. the show or movie). Such methods are extremely effective; Tom Cruise’s Ray-Bans in Risky Business sold 360,000 pairs of the unpopular sunglasses and The Italian Job put Mini Coopers on the map, boosting sales by 22%.

You may wonder how this is nonconscious, since you obviously notice these items are present in the movies. However, priming actually refers to a 3 part process, including awareness of the environmental factors (seeing the Ray-Bans in the movie), the process of activating the concept in the brain (the associations or desires created by seeing the Ray-Bans on Tom Cruise) and the outcome (actually buying the Ray-Bans, or changing your impression of the product).1 For the most part, we are not aware of every part of this process when we have been primed.1 But, as demonstrated by the sales statistics that result from product placement, priming is a highly effective marketing technique.

One way that brands can influence consumers outside of conscious awareness is by priming concepts related to the brand’s personality. For instance, a study by a group of Duke researchers revealed that priming participants with Apple logos made them significantly more creative on a subsequent task than participants who were primed with IBM logos.2 These brand associations are so strong it even works when you prime someone with a logo that is subliminal (it’s presented so fast it can’t be seen even if you are looking at it directly).3 However, in real life, most primes are supraliminal (you can see them, but you don’t realize their impact on your thoughts and behavior).3

Other people can also prime us, as we discussed in the Dasani priming study reviewed in our day 3 post. As in that study, behavioral mimicry can be the outcome of experiencing a prime. Behavioral mimicry occurs when one person behaves in the same way as another person without realizing it. This happens when you notice you are sitting the same way as another person, or you take on an accent when talking with someone from another place. Within the consumer realm, this can happen when you make the same choices as other consumers. One study found that watching another participant eat only goldfish crackers or animal crackers encouraged participants to eat the same snack and ignore the other option when both were provided.4

Automaticity is always at work in the consumer realm, but, for the most part, consumers are unaware of these influences and behaviors. Automatic processes like priming lead consumers to make decisions that are influenced by other consumers and marketing appeals. Many of the topics we have discussed during this series operate automatically, from forming impressions of products to being influenced by the behavior of early adopters. As always, an educated consumer is a savvy consumer!

Happy Holidays, y’all! Thanks for reading and see you in 2015!

Note: You may notice how often I cited Tanya Chartrand in this post. She is one of the foremost authorities on priming and automaticity, as well as a professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. You can find more information on her research at her faculty page.

  1. Chartrand, T. L. (2005). The role of conscious awareness in consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15(3), 203-210.
  2. Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
  3. Bargh, J. A. (2002). Losing consciousness: Automatic influences on consumer judgment, behavior, and motivation. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 280-285.
  4. Tanner, R. J., Ferraro, R., Chartrand, T. L., Bettman, J. R., & Van Baaren, R. (2008). Of chameleons and consumption: The impact of mimicry on choice and preferences. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(6), 754-766.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 9

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Image from Venture Beat

It may not be surprising, given yesterday’s topic, that brand loyalty is related to brand relationships. Brand loyalty is exactly what it sounds like; it is forming a long-term and largely exclusive relationship with a brand. Companies love brand loyalists because most of a company’s sales tend to come from a small portion of their customers. This is something known as the Pareto principle (or the 80/20 rule), where 80% of revenue is generated by only 20% of customers.1 Because repeat customers are so vital to the success of a business, marketers continually try to build and maintain this kind of loyalty.

You can see how loyalty may be involved in many of the topics we’ve discussed. Brand loyalists are more likely to engage in brand communities, they’re less likely to be influenced by the choices of others in product categories in which they are brand loyal and they tend to generate word of mouth about those brands. Some researchers contend that brand loyalty is part and parcel of brand relationships, and it certainly appears to impact many aspects of a consumer’s marketplace experience.2 In fact, there are many parallels between brand loyalty and the concept of loyalty between two people. For instance, people need to trust brands before they can develop brand loyalty.3 We also come to trust brands by getting to know them over time, often through their brand characteristics and corporate behavior. But other factors like brand performance can also contribute to brand loyalty, which can be positive or negative.4 If a product always performs well, there is little reason for a loyal customer to seek other services, while the opposite is true if it performs inconsistently.4

One of the ways that marketers attempt to harness the power of brand loyalty is through loyalty programs. Loyalty programs are rather infamous for costing companies a lot of money for little return. And this makes some logical sense, as customers that are already purchasing a lot may have no need to purchase more often, or the program itself may not be motivating sales. Research has found that successful loyalty programs generally have 3 main characteristics: 1) They relate to high involvement products, 2) They increase the value of the service, and 3) They maximize motivation for the next purchase.5 Companies whose loyalty programs don’t reflect these values are far less successful than those whose programs are more motivating for the customer.

Brand relationships, and the loyalty that may exist within these relationships, are a part of our lives as consumers. When we become brand loyal, we may be champions for a product, building a company’s customer base by spreading the word to friends and family. We may even feel like amateur guerilla marketers. But we should always be aware that loyalty programs are not rewards for consumers, they’re marketing tactics for companies.

  1. Koch, R. (2011). The 80/20 principle: the secret to achieving more with less. Random House LLC.
  2. Fournier, S., & Yao, J. L. (1997). Reviving brand loyalty: a reconceptualization within the framework of consumer-brand relationships. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 14(5), 451-472.
  3. Lau, G. T., & Lee, S. H. (1999). Consumers’ trust in a brand and the link to brand loyalty. Journal of Market-Focused Management, 4(4), 341-370.
  4. Chaudhuri, A., & Holbrook, M. B. (2001). The chain of effects from brand trust and brand affect to brand performance: the role of brand loyalty. Journal of Marketing, 65(2), 81-93.
  5. Dowling, G. R., & Uncles, M. (1997). Do customer loyalty programs really work?. Research Brief, 1.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 8

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Image from BostInno

Now that we know that brands have human characteristics, like personality, let’s talk about how we form relationships with brands. When I was little, my mother always used Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix. Now that I buy my own groceries (bummer), I always buy the same, because I’ve had a long relationship with the Aunt Jemima brand. It also makes delicious pancakes, but I digress. Relationships with brands can be significant for many reasons. The reason I just mentioned is related to nostalgia, or family ties, but you can also imagine relationships with brands being significant because they remind you of certain friends, or they make you feel good. Any way you slice it, maintaining relationships with customers is big business.

Customer relationship management, or CRM, has become key to managing a business. CRM is a way that a company can track an individual customer’s information, preferences and habits in such a way that the company can more effectively market to the individual, as well as retain him or her for future business. But before we form a relationship with a brand, we need to have a good idea of its identity. A company’s identity is composed of consumer perceptions and beliefs about company characteristics, consumer affective responses to the company and impressions of the company’s values.1

While there is a great deal of research on brand relationships, we are going to focus on a case study of compromised brand relationships: American Apparel. This year, Dov Charney, founder and former CEO of American Apparel was fired not once, but twice. For the fashion-obsessed among us, Charney’s bad behavior has long been discussed in relation with American Apparel and their sexualized advertising. In fact, Dov Charney’s sexual misconduct was first reported in 2004, when Charney engaged in some self-satisfaction during an interview with a female reporter. Since then, Charney has been sued by former employees for sexual harassment or misconduct no less than 7 times.

So why fire him now, 10 years after the first reports? Well, a lot of industry insiders think it’s because Charney finally ruined American Apparel’s relationship with its customers. Charney’s behavior was so well-publicized, and led to so much public disdain, that many people transferred these feelings about Charney to feelings about American Apparel. He compromised the brand’s identity by infusing it too much with his own, making it so that shoppers could not help but think about unwanted advances when they were supposed to be shopping for crop tops. And American Apparel’s board was probably right, because American Apparel was hemorrhaging money at the end of 2013, with a total loss of $106 million, a sign of a declining customer base.

Brand relationships are incredibly important, and many of the things we’ve discussed, like brand communities or brand personalities, work to build and support relationships with consumers. Think about the brands you buy, and the way you feel about them. It may surprise you that they’re more than just products, they’re old friends.

  1. Bhattacharya, C. B., & Sen, S. (2003). Consumer-company identification: a framework for understanding consumers’ relationships with companies. Journal of Marketing, 67(2), 76-88.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 4


Structural equation model from Dholakia, Bagozzi, & Pearo, 2003

In the digital age, when so much holiday shopping occurs online, how are consumers socially influenced? The answer is: surprisingly a lot. The average adult in the US spends 5 of their waking hours online. But what are we doing online? We’re on social media, we’re reading and commenting on news articles and discussing that internet content with others. Consider the last time you were with a friend and you brought up an article you saw online, or a post from Instagram. This is part of the way that content goes viral, this word of mouth advertising from trusted others. Word of mouth moves even faster on the internet, with websites like Yelp and Amazon at our fingertips, reviewing products and services from plumbers to stereos.

Social influence is the highest in virtual contexts when people are engaged in relationships, in real life or within a brand community. This is because we’re most influenced by our ingroup members (people we consider part of our social circle, or group within society, e.g. all people of one race, all people of one social class or all alumni of the same college).1 When we’re engaged in virtual brand communities, we form social bonds with that group, creating an ingroup of people and increasing identification with the brand.2 Brand communities can also invoke peer pressure, like pressure to conform in some undesired group discussion, and establish community norms, created and maintained by the moderators and high profile members of the those communities.2 Check out the graphic for a depiction of the incredibly complex process of creating web content through social influence.

Brands themselves have social influence, especially if they are “identity signaling brands.” An identity signaling brand is something that announces you to the world and says, “This reflects who I am as a person.” Not surprisingly, while people tend to stick with the status quo and purchase the same things as others, in identity signaling domains that include displays of wealth or social class, they want to be seen as unique.3 But we all also vary on our need for uniqueness, with some individuals needing to stand out from others, and some preferring to fit in through their choices as consumers.4 For instance, when shopping for a car, someone with a high need for uniqueness may buy a Smart Car (rare here in America), while someone with a low need for uniqueness may buy a Honda (quite common in America). Someone who sees his or her car as an identity signal may be more likely to want to purchase an expensive and rare car, like a Bugatti, to show others that they are different.

It is the job of marketers to be persuasive, and to increase demand for products within the community. And, meanwhile, it is human nature to be influenced by the words and actions of others, as well as our own desires to fit in or stand out. Beware before you engage in social activities based around brands this holiday season! Harnessing the power of peers and the power of consumer goods is a potent combination.

  1. Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.
  2. Algesheimer, R., Dholakia, U. M., & Herrmann, A. (2005). The social influence of brand community: evidence from European car clubs. Journal of Marketing, 69(3), 19-34.
  3. Berger, J., & Heath, C. (2007). Where consumers diverge from others: Identity signaling and product domains. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(2), 121-134.
  4. Tian, K. T., Bearden, W. O., & Hunter, G. L. (2001). Consumers’ need for uniqueness: Scale development and validation. Journal of Consumer Research, 28(1), 50-66.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 3

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Image from

Yesterday, we discussed how contagion may play out in the marketplace, and how other people may affect our brand evaluations. But social influence is ever-present in our lives as consumers, affecting our impressions and our behavior in many ways. Consider how you hear about new bands, or hot clothing trends. Often, we become exposed to these things through our environment. Specifically, through the influence of what marketers call early adopters.

Early adopters are people who are “ahead of the curve” on new trends, and they’re the people you know who always have the new technology, who always have the new clothes and generally know about trends before others. Once those early adopters begin influencing their community, the trend increases exponentially in popularity, through word of mouth and the visibility of the trend. The diffusion of the trend is even faster in close, heterogeneous groups like schools or small towns.1 But, make no mistake, early adopters are just as influenced by us as we are by them. Researchers have found that early adopters enjoy consumption visibility, or, the fact that other people recognize them as early adopters because of their purchasing choices.2 They have a cooler phone than you, and they want you to know it.

Social influence can also alter our brand choices, even when the influence is coming from a total stranger. A study by Maryland and Duke researchers uncovered evidence that incidental consumer brand encounters significantly influence product choices.3 Participants were shown 20 photographs of people engaged in mundane activities, like waiting for the bus.3 Within those photographs, participants either saw 0, 4 or 12 pictures that included a bottle of Dasani water near the person.3 They then asked participants to choose 1 of 4 brands of bottled water, with Dasani among the brands.3 Controlling for participants who explicitly noticed the Dasani water in the pictures, participants who viewed 12 pictures with Dasani brand images were more than 25% more likely to choose Dasani bottled water than those who saw none or only 4.3 While this may seem obvious, this is the reason advertisers flood you with repeated brand messages in hopes of altering your purchasing intentions. Fight the repetitive power!

So, you heard it here first folks, go out and be the anonymous consumer influences you were born to be!

  1. Delre, S. A., Jager, W., & Janssen, M. A. (2007). Diffusion dynamics in small-world networks with heterogeneous consumers. Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory, 13(2), 185-202.
  2. Fisher, R. J., & Price, L. L. (1992). An investigation into the social context of early adoption behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 477-486.
  3. Ferraro, R., Bettman, J. R., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). The power of strangers: The effect of incidental consumer brand encounters on brand choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(5), 729-741.